The following is Section 2 from Module 2 of “Essential Skills for Engaging Conflict”, a course that Sound Options Group developed in partnership with Oklahoma State University. These modules are a great resource to lead your team through as you work to improve your conflict engagement skills.
2. Conflict as a Context for Possibility
In Module 1, we introduced the notion that “the free flow of conflicting ideas is critical for creative thinking, for discovering new solution no one individual would have come to on his own”. This potential, it would seem, is too rarely experienced by teams and groups. When asked to define and/or describe their experience of conflict, people will often use such descriptors as stressful, exhausting, futile, scary, dangerous, polarizing, etc. When asked to describe life without conflict one will often hear responses ranging from peaceful to stagnant and boring.
The point is that conflict is neither good nor bad; it simply is. As stated earlier, at the heart of conflict is a “perception of incompatible difference or threat” to our resources, needs or values. It is how we interpret these differences that create our experience. It could be said that our experience in conflict is embedded in the stories we tell ourselves about the situation or the people with whom we are engaged. Even the language we as professionaluse to describe the experience reflect these stories. We talk about conflict as something to be managed or resolved. We see conflict as something to be fixed so that we can get on with things. We too often see conflict as what stand betweenus and our objectives.
Recently a new term is surfacing that I believe more accurately reflects a shift in our thinking. As an alternative to Conflict Management and Dispute Resolution, one is beginning to hear the term Conflict Engagement. This begins to hint at the potential that exists if and when we choose to not avoid conflict but rather to engage the perceived differences with an expectation of possibility.
If, at a fundamental level, it is our beliefs about, and orientation to conflict which create our experience, what is our choice? How do we impact what is often a deeply embedded belief system? At the heart of preparation is a shift in orientation to a conversation in which we have found ourselves stuck. For example it is a shift from:
- Certainty to Curiosity: How would a better understanding of your point of view expand my perspective on the situation?
- Debate to Exploration: Rather than argue between our two current perspectives, let’s expand our shared understanding of the issue(s) at hand.
- Simplicity to Complexity: My hunch is that this issue is more complex than we are willing to admit. Rather than engaging in simplistic thinking, let’s acknowledge and engage the complexity.
- Either/Or thinking to And thinking: Polarizing around the issue is notuseful if we want to achieve mutual gain or benefit. Let’s expand our range of options.
Increasing our effectiveness in the context of conflict is not simply about learning new skills or strategies. While this is essential and will be addressed in subsequent lessons, these skills and strategies must be built upon a shift in who we choose to be in these challenging situations.
Models for reflecting on this choice can be found in the emerging field of coaching. Coaches assist people to increase awareness of how choices related to personal being are impacting their achievement of some goal or objective. One paradigm is found in the distinction between being “at effect” or “at cause”.
When operating “at effect” we feel powerless and helpless in the face of some act, circumstance, condition, and/or person. We often seek out others agreement about how bad things are, and about how we are really doing the best we can. A colleague of mine refers to this as “recruiting third party warriors” to our view of the situation. We take fewer and fewer risks, content to just try to get through another day without being a really big victim. What runs our lives are our conversations. These conversations focus on what we can not do because of the actions of another or the situation as opposed to what we can do. Being at effect is not particularly satisfying, but it is predictable and familiar.
When operating, “at cause”, we do not spend a lot of energy estimating how things got to be the way they are, who is to blame, or who happens to be right or wrong. Rather we focus on effective action toward mutual purpose. We are more concerned with having a situation or relationship work than the reason it will not. The responsible person does not approach the situation or relationship as though something is wrong, rather that there is something missing. There is a belief that thee actions we choose to take will influence a situation and can moveus toward a satisfactory outcome. We take responsibility to achieving what we are committed to both in the relationship and the situation.
As a group,use the following questions to increase your shared understanding of conflict as possibility.
- How and where were your beliefs about conflict formed?
- How do your beliefs about conflict serve you in collaboration and teaming?
- In what ways do your beliefs about conflict not serve you well?
- What assumptions are these beliefs built on?
- What are you committed to creating around your capacity for engaging conflict?
- What specific action(s) might you take become more “at cause” in challenging conversations